By Greg Basky for SHRF
Veterinary professor Dr. Gillian Muir smiles as she thinks back to early 2020 and the daily exchanges she had with Dr. Volker Gerdts, director and CEO of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) and this year’s recipient of the SHRF Achievement Award. The pair would tag off in a lecture theatre at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) as Muir packed up after teaching her first-year neuroscience class, and Gerdts readied to deliver a lecture on immunology to his first-year students. “He said to me, ‘Hey, we just isolated this new SARS virus.’ recalls Muir, now dean of the WCVM. “And I was like, ‘Great! Way to go! High five!” And then I’d see him the next day, and I’d say “So how’s it going? Have you solved this thing yet?”
The two kept up this running dialogue, day after day, until the University of Saskatchewan (USask) shut down in-person classes in March 2020 and shifted to online learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Muir remembers thinking at the time: “How amazing is that? Learning immunology from the person leading the first organization in Canada to isolate the SARS coronavirus and develop the first animal model.”
Taken together, Gerdts’s leadership of VIDO – particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic – his career-long focus on the relationship between animal and human health, and his commitment to students and early career scientists all make a compelling case for his selection as this year’s recipient of the SHRF Achievement Award.
The award is presented annually to a scientist active in Saskatchewan, with at least 15 years of experience as an independent researcher. It recognizes their career contributions to our collective knowledge in a specific field, their work to develop and lead the people and infrastructure that make excellent health research in Saskatchewan possible, and the impact they’ve had on health and health care in Saskatchewan and beyond. Nominations submitted by a candidate’s peers are reviewed by a panel of national and local experts from a range of fields.
Dr. Volker Gerdts, Photo Submitted.
Born and raised in Germany, Gerdts knew by the time he was in high school that he wanted to pursue a career in research. He remembers learning about different professions and receiving the advice that veterinary medicine was a broad foundation he could build on and take in many different directions. “I think that’s the best advice I ever received in my career,” says Gerdts, who was appointed VIDO’s CEO and director in 2019. “As a biochemist, you might spend your entire career characterizing one protein of one virus. As a veterinarian, you start by understanding the whole organism first, the animal, and how it all works – the kidneys, the liver, the brain. That foundation enables you to eventually dive in and understand specific functions. But first you have this broad foundation, and that’s so critical.”
In 1995, after completing his PhD – which focused on a DNA vaccine for pigs – Gerdts cast around for other research institutes doing work in a similar field. He discovered that Dr. Lorne Babiuk, then director and CEO of VIDO, was the first person to work on a DNA vaccine for cattle. When he dug deeper, he found out that Dr. Philip Griebel, a researcher and immunologist at VIDO, was doing fascinating work to understand how to deliver vaccines via mucosal surfaces. With the support of a generous scholarship from the German government, Gerdts came to Saskatoon with a plan to do a postdoctoral fellowship for two years, then return home, recruit a team, and establish a lab to continue the research he started in Canada.
The VIDO team had different plans though, and in 2002, they recruited Gerdts as a research scientist and program manager before he’d fulfilled the four-year commitment that was part of his government scholarship. Early in his time at VIDO, he was awarded a SHRF Establishment Grant, which Gerdts says was a big boost in getting his research program started. “After that, several of my trainees (postdoctoral fellows) were also funded by SHRF, which further helped accelerate my research.”
Gerdts’s research “stats” are impressive: over the course of his research career, he’s published more than 150 journal articles and delivered more than 300 presentations. Gerdts has received 91 grants worth more than $200 million, including $117 million as principal investigator, more than $79 million as co-applicant, and over $10 million in contract research.
Building VIDO, building tomorrow's scientists
Dr. Baljit Singh, now vice-president research at USask, came to the university at about the same time Gerdts did 20 years ago. As they rose through the ranks in their respective fields, they became colleagues and friends. Singh says Gerdts has always been committed to training and developing students “to be better than we are.” “That’s his passion, transferring knowledge through mentorships, through training undergraduate students, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and the new professors who are coming after him,” says Singh.
Muir too is struck by how seriously Gerdts takes his role as professor in the WCVM’s Department of Veterinary Microbiology. “Despite the heavy load that comes with being director and CEO at VIDO, he is still teaching first-year veterinary students,” says Muir. “A lot of people in his position would just think that was beneath them. But he doesn't. I think he gets real joy out of talking to and teaching veterinary students.”
“I think there’s a lot we can learn from them (students),” says Gerdts. “Teaching is a way to share my passion with others.” Getting first-year veterinary students interested in immunology got a whole lot easier during the pandemic, according to Gerdts. “It's only a two-credit course, so it's not high on their agenda, and they’re super stressed, because they have all these other classes,” says Gerdts. “Before, it was like ‘Why would I learn this?’ Now I just say, ‘How many of you have received a COVID vaccine? And boom! You have their attention and off you go.”
VIDO’s growth under Gerdts only accelerated during the pandemic. With financial support from all levels of government, the organization has become Canada’s Centre for Pandemic Research. They’re completing the remaining upgrades that will make VIDO the kind of institute most researchers from around the world can only dream about.
VIDO recently completed construction of its in-house vaccine manufacturing facility, something only a handful of other institutes have. It operates one of the world’s largest containment facilities, currently being upgraded to the highest level of containment – which will eventually allow them to work with any pathogen, human or animal. And they’re building a new animal facility to house the exotic species from which infectious diseases often emerge. “We’re putting in place an environment that really makes the research here limitless,” says Gerdts.
Building our collective understanding of One Health
One of the things Gerdts is most proud of is that he’s a veterinarian by training, but now working on both human and animal diseases. “That really speaks to what we call One Health,” says Gerdts. “It’s all linked. You really can’t separate one from the other. And I think my whole career has shown how the concept of One Health is true, how the two (animal and human health) are linked.” It’s gratifying, he says, that even as a veterinarian, he can be at the forefront of research and do “really cool science.” “I think it shows future veterinarians that there are so many things in this profession that you can go into – you don’t have to be a practising veterinarian.”
Singh worked with Gerdts from 2012 to 2018 to create and lead Canada’s first One Health training program, which educated young students from dozens of countries and encouraged their collaboration in the fight against infectious diseases. “His ideas were ahead of their time,” says Singh. “His favorite metaphor is we cannot begin to hire firefighters when the fire has already begun. We need to have the firefighters trained and ready to go. That’s what we were trying to do through the One Health training program.” Graduates of the program, says Singh, are now active in pandemic research in Canada, Germany, India, and Brazil. “He was very farsighted in these matters.”
Protecting the health of people in Saskatchewan and abroad
Under Gerdts, VIDO made massive contributions to Canada’s pandemic response – including being the first Canadian university organization with a COVID-19 vaccine in clinical trials. At the time, they were still a relatively small fish in a big pond, says Gerdts. “We hadn’t yet advanced a vaccine to clinical trials before. So for us, much of this was new. But this is what we had built for and this is what we had trained our people for. It was the time to do it.”
Gerdts has also led development of several other vaccines for humans and animals. He was co-lead for an international project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which ultimately led to the development of a universal protocol for vaccinating pregnant women to improve the health of newborn babies. Thanks to this work, pregnant women now receive the pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine, to protect their children against the disease.
The right leader, at the right time
Singh was dean of the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine when the pandemic hit in 2020. He says he took comfort from knowing that Gerdts was at the helm of VIDO. “He was the right kind of leader, at the right moment, for VIDO,” says Singh.
“I kept on thinking “I am glad Volker Gerdts is the leader at VIDO because he will deliver. And he did. They replicated the virus. They ran an animal model. They developed a vaccine. They tested a vaccine at the same time they were getting funding in place and people in place. I think we as Canadians should be very proud that we have him in this country.”